DON'T LOOK NOW, BUT the political winds may be shifting--back in California's favor. For years the Golden State was said to be the nation's political vanguard, but in the last decade or so it has been anything but cutting-edge. California hasn't been in play in a presidential contest since 1988. State issues that spawned heated initiative battles during the 1990s--illegal immigration and affirmative action--failed to become national causes. Even the historic recall election of October 2003 was dismissed as an only-in-California affair, as no other state was likely to replace its governor with an action-movie hero.
So why is California hot stuff again? Credit Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his state's November 8 special election.
For the 13th time in California history, a statewide election is featuring initiatives but no candidates. Campaign spending has been furious, and will probably exceed $300 million, by Arnold and his opponents, by the time it's over. Turnout is unpredictable, so the polls are even less reliable than usual. All said, the special election is a formula for big surprises and results that could further enhance Schwarzenegger's mystique.
In his January State of the State address, Schwarzenegger called on the state legislature to pass reforms concerning redistricting, state spending, public employee pensions, and education. When Democrats balked, Schwarzenegger made good on his threat to call a special election. Picking and choosing his agenda, he added four measures to those initiatives that had already qualified for the ballot. The resulting ballot contains eight measures, Propositions 73 through 80. The heart of the ticket--74 through 77--just happens to be Schwarzenegger's reform slate.
If Arnold gets his way, California's political landscape will change dramatically, first by a reduction in the clout of unions. Proposition 75 would bar government employee unions from spending members' dues on political campaigns without their consent. After similar measures were approved in Utah and Washington state, only 15 percent of education union members contributed to education state PACs. That would spell disaster for the left in California. In 2003 and 2004, when only 43 percent of the electorate was registered Democrat, the California Teachers Association raised nearly $16 million and spent 89 percent of it on Democratic candidates. How will the unions get even? Look for an initiative next June requiring California corporations to get shareholders' permission before making political donations.
Proposition 76 caps spending by limiting new expenditures to the past three years' average, and it gives Schwarzenegger leeway to cut entitlement programs in down times. Because of structural deficits, the cap may not kick in until 2013. However, the thought of mid-year rescissions would dangle over legislative Democrats like the sword from Conan the Barbarian hanging in the governor's office. And it might help jumpstart a budget process that limps along for nearly seven months every year.
Both parties are less certain about the lasting effects of Proposition 77, which would strip the legislature of its gerrymandering power. To discourage support, opponents have been floating conspiracy theories, casting it as part of a Republican plot to rob Democrats in Sacramento or even a Democratic plot to take over the House of Representatives. Last fall in California, none of the 153 contested legislative and congressional seats changed party. If enacted, Prop. 77 will make for a more competitive climate: An estimated 10 House seats, plus another 15 state Senate and Assembly seats, would be in play.
So how does all of this pertain to national politics?
Abortion. Proposition 73 would have California join the dozen or so states that have adopted a parental notification requirement for minors seeking an abortion. So, it's not exactly innovative. And "notification" laws tend to be pretty mild, unlike parental consent laws, which are on the books in about 20 states. Still, this referendum comes while the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of New Hampshire's notification law. Prop. 73's opponents claim it's a first attempt to undermine Roe v. Wade in California. Prop. 73's backers say its support (it's even or ahead in most polls) shows momentum on the pro-life side. The battle pits the California Catholic Conference of Bishops against Planned Parenthood of California. The wild card is Schwarzenegger, who is pro-choice but favors Prop. 73. He's told reporters: "I wouldn't want to have someone take my daughter to a hospital for an abortion or something and not tell me. I would kill him if they do that."
Education. Proposition 74 would extend the period before a California teacher gains tenure from a mere two years to five years. The California Teachers Association is rallying to kill it, but the union has already blown through $50 million this summer filling TV airwaves with anti-Arnold ads. So, the CTA raised its members' dues to come up with another $60 million and has been negotiating a $40 million line of credit (in addition to an outstanding $20 million credit line). If Prop. 74 passes, look for other states to express their frustration with the slow pace of education reform.
Union Clout. Organized labor will have spent well over $100 million in the special election by the time it's over, with the unions' top priority being the defeat of Prop. 75. Nationally, Big Labor has fallen on hard times: internal rifts, losses in the last two presidential elections, fewer water-carriers in Congress. If Prop. 75 passes, it will be another major loss for the unions, seriously undermining their political influence in the country's most populous state. On the other hand, handing Schwarzenegger a defeat would lend the unions a big psychological boost heading into next year's congressional midterm election.
Fiscal Conservatism. Proposition 76's success may hinge on this question: After a decade of profligate spending both in Washington and state capitals, do voters still care about budget restraint? If Prop. 76 passes, despite a fierce attack from the teachers' union and other public-employee fronts, anti-pork reform could end up as a popular entrant in next year's congressional races.
Incumbency. It's no surprise that both incumbent Republicans and Democrats oppose the anti-gerrymandering Proposition 77. The "no" side, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, has tried to link the ballot measure to former House Majority leader Tom DeLay and the Texas redistricting controversy. If Prop. 77 passes, it will suggest that the DeLay controversy is a nonstarter, even in a Texas-loathing, deep-blue state like California.
Prescription Drugs. Overshadowed by the Arnold-union shootout is an $80 million campaign by pharmaceutical firms to kill Proposition 79, which would create a state-run drug discount program for low-income adults and children. The "no" message is simple: Don't put bureaucrats in charge of medical decisions. If Prop. 79 suffers a resounding defeat, that will bode poorly for Hillary Clinton in 2008.
In the last two California elections without statewide candidates on the ballot--1979 and 1993--turnout was no higher than 37 percent of registered voters (turnout for the recall election was 61 percent). Some strategists see a turnout as low as 35 percent, or about 5.5 million votes. That's good news for Schwarzenegger, as Republicans in California historically turn out at higher levels than Democrats. And it creates this dilemma for the unions: how to run a negative campaign that turns out the union vote, but doesn't turn off a disenchanted electorate (according to one statewide survey, 73 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents are anti-election).
For the second time in two years, Schwarzenegger seeks to reverse California's political law of gravity--turning unpopular initiatives into winners. Going back to November 2002, it's the fifth time he's played a featured role on the California ballot. In a land not averse to sequels, the November special election tests whether the governor still has that box-office magic.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics. He has been a consultant for Steve Poizner both on Proposition 77 and Poizner's 2004 Assembly campaign.